Accused arsonist’s apparently employer didn’t know about his illness–and had no right to know

In today’s Contra Costa Times story about Scott David Weinberg, the optometrist accused in arson fires in downtown Walnut Creek, the reporters asked whether his most recent employer knew about “his past,” which presumably would include his mental illness and history of hospitalizations.

Weinberg had worked at For Your Eyes Only, a practice in the Ygnacio Valley Shopping Center, from August 2006 until this past July, “when he abruptly quit. When the Times asked senior optometrist Wayne Martin if the practice knew of Weinberg’s “past,” Martin replied. “Not that I know of. … He was fine, and got along with all the patients.”

When someone has been diagnosed with a mental illness and wants or needs to work–and can work–they face a difficult decision in whether to disclose their illness to a prospective employer, or after they have been hired.

They may not get the job, because of stigma against people with mental illness, or face on-the-job discrimination, meaning they might not win job promotions or raises.

Still they might want to tell, if they feel the need to explain gaps in their resume, or if they think their mental illness–a recognized disability under the federal American With Disabilities Act–would require certain workplace accommodations. For example, someone with schizophrenia may hear voices (a symptom of this medical condition) which may interfere with concentrating on a task for long periods of time.

Most people with mental illness probably would like to tell, because they don’t want to hide something so fundamental about themselves. And, some would like to educate or help others when they disclose. However, those good intentions only work up to a point, according to a 2007 article in the Washington Post.

“The vast majority are saying to themselves, ‘Why would I ever disclose? Everybody’s afraid of people with mental illness.’ ” So says Stephen Hinshaw, chairman of the psychology department at the University of California at Berkeley and author of The Mark of Shame: Stigma of Mental Illness and an Agenda for Change, in an interview with the Post. But, he continues, “That only perpetuates shame, ignorance, and an inability to proactively take steps to ease the situation.”

The ADA prohibits any kind of descrimination against people with a disability, including a mental illness. It requires employers of 15 or more employees to provide an equal opportunity to qualified individuals, and it prohibits discrimination in various aspects of employment.

But while employers can’t discriminate against employees who are qualified to do the job, they are not obligated to hire anyone you cannot perform the essential functions of the job.

It doesn’t sound like Weinberg told his employers at For Your Eyes Only. He was not legally obligated to do so, and the practice couldn’t ask when hiring, according to this ADA Q&A sheet:

“An employer cannot make any pre-employment inquiry about a disability or the nature or severity of a disability. An employer may, however, ask questions about the ability to perform specific job functions … ”

It sounds like, for the time he was there, he was able to do the work.

For more information about the American with Disabilities Act, visit this information guide from Boston University, the U.S. ADA site, or this FAQ sheet from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

4 thoughts on “Accused arsonist’s apparently employer didn’t know about his illness–and had no right to know

  1. the problem with the ADA law is that it does not also require diversity training that covers mental illness, so that when someone at work is allowed to stay in their position, even when they do questionable things, the other staff may not have any idea about what is going on or why “reasonable accommodations” have been provided.

    The bigger problem is if they really cannot do their job even at the essential functions level but they are promoted and then take out their psychosis on others – been there seen that – one place I worked had at least 3 or 4 ADA mentally ill people in management – and their misbehavior was consistently covered up by even higher management… several lower level staff ended up being on medication too – just to deal with being at work with the real crazies… still – nothing gets done there of any significance. You all would be disgusted to know who that organization is… perhaps time will tell.

    So, in my view, FIX THE ADA LAW – it covers up too much bad behavior for people who should be in positions that they really are able to do, like maintenance, not management.


  2. I went to that practice for a while and Dr. Martin always seemed like a stand-up guy. I was dismayed to see the media putting him on the spot like that.


  3. Mental illness often comes with a stigma. Many people often view mentally ill people with fear. This is a very ignorant view. Mental illness comes in all sort of varying degrees. We have all experienced certain highs and lows in life. I am sure there are many people who have suffered from depression. In fact, many people who view themselves as normal actually may have some level of mental illness whether it is hidden depression or low self esteem.

    There are many mental illnesses out there that are capable of being controlled effectively with medication. There could be a small chemical imbalance in the brain that is easily corrected with medication. If that person were to forget to his or her medication, it could lead to a very public incident. I think that many people view the mentally ill as crazy people who want to be crazy. Mental illness is not a choice. People are either born that way or gain mental illness through some sort of trauma or abuse.

    People with mental illness need support and understanding. It is time for people to be tolerant and accepting. Intolerance of the mentally ill is like modern day racism. We see mentally ill people and automatically assume that they need to be segregated. Some people view the mentally ill as being less than human beings. Every person is a valuable person and a negative attitude towards the mentally ill is the new racism of today.

    I don't think that it is right for people to be forced to publicly admit if they have mental illnesses. It should be up to a person to reveal or not reveal their medical issues to other people.

    If there are companies that have mentally ill management, it is the fault of the people who hired these people. If the mental illness was discovered later and it affects their job performance then it is the fault of the human resources department and other management people for keeping these people on the payroll. It is up to companies to weed out people who cannot do their jobs. We should not go out there and try to make laws that expose people's medical or mental conditions.


  4. Yes, I view with fear mentally ill people who are serial killers. Duh.

    We need to bring some sense to the ADA laws. I'm not sanguine about this being accomplished since the laws were written by mentally ill people – the US Congress.


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